An angry day in London, what next?

Dec 10th 2010, The Economist



NEVER underestimate luck in politics.


The sense that there was a new, dangerous edge to yesterday’s central London protests against higher university tuition fees was enormously magnified by the news, last night, that the Prince of Wales and his wife had been attacked in their car as they drove down Regent Street. Switching on the television, you did not have to be a swooning monarchist to feel a jolt of shock at the pictures of a visibly alarmed prince and his wife, hopelessly—almost absurdly—vulnerable in their evening dress in the back seat of a vast, lumbering old Rolls Royce, complete with extra large windows for waving from and royal coat of arms mounted on the roof.

The newspapers were duly full of pictures of the royal couple, as well as images of the smashed window of their car and a great smear across its gleaming bodywork where somebody had thrown a can of paint. But of course, this was effectively an accident. The prince had been on his way to an annual charity theatrical extravaganza, the Royal Variety Performance (a duty which is already one of the trials of the royal year), when his car had been stuck in traffic near Oxford Circus, far from the centre of the student protests. By chance, a smallish breakaway group of protestors were in the same spot, apparently intent on smashing up some posh shops when suddenly the poshest car in Britain purred up next to them, bearing a prince in black tie. Some sort of attack on the car was more or less inevitable at that point. The prince was a victim of dreadful luck (and arguably poor reconnaissance and teamwork by the police and his protection officers, a question which is even now being investigated). But even as I watched I found myself thinking, this could so nearly have been so much worse. And luck has been at the forefront of my mind all along, during this first wave of unrest.

Let me explain. I’m pretty sure that if the occupant of the Rolls Royce last night had been the Queen, an elderly lady who also commands much more public respect and loyalty than her son, the country would have woken this morning in a much darker mood. What if the armoured glass of the Rolls Royce’s window had given way, injuring the prince (or the Queen)? What if a police bodyguard had been injured, or pulled his gun? (There are reports in some newspapers that the policeman in the prince’s chase car was bashing protestors away with his car door, which sounds a bit close for comfort if true). What if the royal car had injured someone when it finally made its escape at some speed? A different outcome to any one of these what-ifs would, I think, make Britain feel a markedly edgier country right now.

I thought the same at the first student protests that saw windows broken at the Conservative party HQ, and a fire extinguisher thrown from the roof, narrowly missing the police below. If the extinguisher had been a foot to one side and killed a policeman, the politics of austerity would have taken a quite different turn.

Is this a turning point? Regular readers will know that my hunch 10 days ago, during the last student protests, was that this was not a revolution in the making. I still think that. It does not take very many trouble-makers to create the sort of violent scenes seen yesterday.

Nor were all of them students, though when I was on the streets last week I did not see too many of the « rent-a-mob anarchists » being talked about in some tabloids this morning. True, there were some of the older, tough anti-globalisation types you see at things like G8 or G20 protests. But the people who worried me were more the young 16 year old kids from tough outer suburbs, many with scarves over their faces. They radiated some of the same sort of anger of the « casseurs » seen at Parisian demonstrations, from the grim housing estates around the French capital. Though at French protests it is true that casseurs are often a group apart from the main body of demonstrators, and spend as much energy attacking students and passers-by as they do fighting the police.

In contrast, if teenagers were behind some of the serious vandalism and trouble yesterday, I would guess there was a solidly political core to their anger. The small number of teenagers I spoke to last week were incensed that a government full of posh millionaires was—as they saw it—removing the public support that would allow them any hope of attending higher education. It is an under-reported detail that many of the demonstrators are not just angry about the idea of rising tuition fees in the future, they are also very angry about the planned abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a £30 a week bribe (for want of a better word) paid to pupils who turn up on time every morning at sixth form colleges. There are, as it happens, good arguments to be made for and against the EMA. But to the demonstrators, the only explanation was that a bunch of rich people in power are heartlessly taking something from poor kids, because they are selfish and do not care.

A rather woolly prediction flows from this. I still think that mainstream student protests are the wrong trigger for a wider political crisis for this coalition government. That is because I still have a hunch that a lot of voters look at the protests and either recoil from the violence on display, or see the students as a relatively privileged group, at a time of cuts across the board.

But I do have a broader sense that the government has a problem with any sense that this country is being run by the rich, and the rich are not playing fair. At a time of austerity, the charge that this government is a bunch of millionaires sitting around the cabinet table hurts. I think Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, revealed a telling hint of a strategy to come when he taunted David Cameron this week about his days as a member of the Bullingdon Club, a raucous dining club for gilded toffs at Oxford with a track record of raucous, glass-breaking, food-throwing bad behaviour. Mr Miliband talked about the prime minister living on Planet Cameron.

Such appeals to class envy are not enough on their own to stir things up in British politics. But if they are coupled to a sense that the rich and privileged are playing the system for their own advantage, then things become toxic.

For my money, the most dangerous protests for the coalition, potentially, are the sit-in demonstrations at branches of Topshop and other stores owned by Arcadia, a firm run in a notably tax-efficient fashion by Sir Philip Green. Other big firms, such as Vodaphone, have also been accused of tax avoidance by protestors (though, just to be clear, the firms involved are not accused of tax evasion, which is illegal). But if I were in Downing Street, I would be wary of talk that this axe-wielding government was cutting from the poor while palling around with billionaire tax-dodgers. Earlier this year, Sir Philip was asked to carry out a review of wasteful spending inside government. Making him a government adviser, even an unpaid adviser, was a risk that may come back to haunt the coalition.

With Christmas looming, the student protests may well lose traction for a bit. But it is bonus season in the City next month, including in banks that have received a lot of public money to help them through the credit crunch.

Envy of the rich alone is not a danger. But a broad sense that rich people with privileged access to the government are not playing fair at a time of public spending cuts, now that is a danger. I think that is the story that is going to keep us busier than tuition fees.


  1. Find the English words corresponding to the French words given hereafter. The words follow the order of the text.
  2. Rephrase and explain the italicized passages.
  3. Demonstrations and protests often hit the papers. Is the coverage of such events in the press neutral? How can press coverage be fair when it comes to social unrest? (a minimum of 15 lines is required).




2. a) The author suggests / claims / states that a few protestors may cause havoc. Indeed, even if only a handful of / a small bunch of / a few riotous demonstrators become violent, it may create a fearful atmosphere and instill a sense of violence.

The word protestator does not exist, the word protestor is used in the text and it was easy to re-use it.

b) In this sentence, the journalist gives his own interpretation of the recent events. He is convinced that / is satisfied that / is of a mind that many people disapprove of the coalition government policy and that England is going through a large political crisis. According to him, the students are not only demonstrating against the rise of tuition fees but are unhappy with the economic situation and their career prospects. The author believes that the students are barking up the wrong tree / fighting the wrong battle and should demand a wider political shift.

Mind the difference between politics and policy.

There is a difference between compound nouns and the possessive case:

The government’s policy – government policy

The students’ protests – student protest

Career prospects MAIS PAS career’s prospect


In the headline, the journalist  uses a euphemism since the adjective “angry” is used to describe the Prince’s mishap, an incident that has hit the headlines of all British papers and which could have had much more serious consequences. The journalist seems to downplay the importance of the event and refuses to sensationalize the news, which is in keeping with The Economist’s editorial line. Yet, the question, “what’s next” instills doubt in the readers’minds. It suggests that the situation might get worse / worsen if, by chance, an unexpected incident occurred.

The subheadline “NEVER underestimate luck in politics” is slightly ironical and double-edged. As a matter of fact, it warns the government of possible drifts: so far, the government has been lucky that no accident transformed the demonstrations into a class-war but things could easily fall out of control. If a member of the royal family had been hurt in the incident, a fierce political crisis could have burst out. By emphasizing “never” and using capital / block letters, the journalist makes the warning even more urgent / pressing, so the subheadline rings like a bad omen / a foreboding of dangerous moments ahead.

Mind the use of the conditional:

If the government reacts promptly, England will probably avoid a cabinet reshuffle.

If the protestors were more aggressive, public opinion would stop supporting them.

If the car had been damaged and the Prince injured, no doubt several students would have been arrested and put behind bars.

4. For a protest to be effective / efficient, it has to be reported in the press / in the papers because news outlets are the main sources of information and may alter people’s voting behavior.  Yet, whenever a demonstration is held / whenever people take to the street, the media focus / put the limelight on the rioters and print a string of photographs evidencing violence and youth disrespect because it sells well. The readers are often more interested in the damage caused by the rioters than in the claims of the peaceful protestors. Protests and demonstrations are moments when the opposition to the ruling majority is highly visible, so the coverage of the events will depend on the paper’s political leaning. Press barons are seldom supporting trade-unionists. Most accounts are therefore biased / flawed / slanted and the journalist is likely to be prejudiced either in favor of the government or in favor of the protestors. It is hard for the author not to take sides. The journalist is bound to respond to the situation in a political way. To be fair, a journalist should include interviews in his report and enable / permit / make it possible for the readers to form their own opinions. Providing the viewers with opposed viewpoints is a means of being fair. The journalist may also contend himself with highlighting disagreements or listing the arguments put forward by the contending forces.

5. If tuitions fees increased dramatically in the forthcoming years, it would undoubtedly widen the education gap. Indeed, higher education should not be reserved solely for the moneyed classes. If low-income families can no longer afford tuition fees, children from deprived backgrounds/ the more destitute students / less affluent students will not be able to enroll at college, regardless of their academic achievement / grades / school results. Higher tuition fees would compound / worsen / cause social discrimination in higher education and, consequently, deprive the poorest students of decent education and career prospects.  As a result, education could be increasingly perceived as based on privilege and not on academic merit, which would de-motivate most high-school students. Besides, if students were to borrow money to undertake studies, they would have to pay out their debts after graduation when they get their first job, which would reduce their purchasing power significantly. To put things briefly / in a nutshell, higher tuitions fees will engender / entail / bring about a greater social reproduction and jeopardize / hamper / hinder social mobility.